My original review for this weekend was meant to be “In the Earth”, a horror movie with pandemic-themed frights. However, a scheduling conflict kept me from visiting the theater leading me to explore a familiar resource to satisfy my horror thirst, Shudder. The streaming service is often a source for underappreciated new genre releases and in 2020 presented one of my favorite movies of the year, “Host”. Last week the service released another new film with an intriguing premise called “The Power” which served as my replacement for “In the Earth” this weekend. Set in 1973, “The Power” focuses on a unique time in history when the economic situation in Britain forced rolling blackouts at night to conserve power. A nurse named Valarie (Rose Williams) ends up spending her first day at a crumbling hospital as part of the overnight staff but finds herself haunted by a paranormal force while uncovering dark secrets hidden within the walls of the facility. There was so much potential for this setup and with relative newcomer Corinna Faith (whose only other major genre film “Ashes” was released in 2005) writing and directing it there was promise for an inspired and insightful thematic horror drama. That’s what we get in the first 40 minutes, but in the second half of the film everything devolves into a mess of clichés that undermine all of the film’s potential.
“The Power” actually starts off pretty strong. We’re introduced to Rose Williams’ Val who joins a hospital as a nurse and proves to be both smart and dedicated in her job, but also submissive likely due to trauma faced at the orphanage she grew up in. This is all presented in a matter of fifteen minutes through seamless interactions with her fellow nurses as well as a doctor named Franklyn (Charlie Carrick) with whom Val forms an instant connection. Within a day Val becomes a favorite of Franklyn’s and thus rubs her supervisor the wrong way and is tasked with the overnight shift on her very first day when the power will be cut as part of rolling blackouts at that time in British history. This all sets up what could have and should have been a genuinely spooky premise. The idea of a new nurse with a meek disposition who has left a bad first impression on her fellow nurses being thrust into literal darkness trying to keep her patients safe and healthy while dealing with her own trauma has loads of potential. The fact that Val has to deal with issues of sexism and a class system within the hospital also offers plenty of potential to touch on timely ideas of female empowerment and the dedication of health providers. Sadly, it’s all wasted when the second half of the movie kicks in.
Right around the 40-minute mark, just about exactly halfway, things start to get really weird. Val suffers an encounter with an unseen entity, which to that point had been implied through whispers and Val being touched by unseen forces, which turns the experience on its head delving us deep into a paranormal horror while setting all of the thematic elements introduced in the first half aside. All of a sudden this world building and character development feels like a tool to dive in to a pool of clichés to bring traditional spooks into the equation including ideas of possession and ghosts which play into a darker secret of the hospital the truth of which becomes more and more obvious with every attempted jump scare and flashback. The scares aren’t the most effective, although I give the film credit for being mildly restrained and picking its moments more carefully than more generic genre pieces. What scares we are presented with though are forgettable at best. In fact, the fear of the unknown in the first half of the film where Val enters dark hallways with well-placed music and subtle sound cues is much more frightening and unsettling than anything we see in the last 40 minutes. It’s an unfortunate tale of two halves feeling like completely different movies with the first half being inspired, creative and controlled while the second feels amped up to create shock value and conform to a completely different format of horror. None of it adds up to anything special, especially since the movie does a horrible job guiding us into the mythology and mystery behind the paranormal activity despite excellently guiding us in the first fifteen minutes into Val’s life and why the night shift would be terrifying to her. How a movie can do so much right then so much wrong in different halves of its runtime blows my mind a bit.
I do believe that director/writer Corinna Faith had good intentions with this movie though. In one form or another the overall theme this film DOES completely own is playing off of its title as a double meaning, referring to both the power being cut off but also the imbalance of power that Val has to work around as a meek nurse in a hospital in a time where sexism and class hierarchy were very relevant prejudices. She faces scrutiny from many different people in a single night and those she does come to trust end up turning on her in one way or another putting her in a situation where she has to decide between taking care of herself, her patients and maintaining her employment which are, at times, the same problem and other times mutually exclusive. This imbalance of power in her life, and in other aspects of reality she faces over the course of the night, shows potential to shine a light on some very dark truths of both the real world and the film’s own reality but instead it’s all overshadowed by an insane paranormal element that forces the movie into darker territory rather than bringing things in that direction organically. I would have rather seen Val explore the hospital and uncover its secrets on her own, facing the consequences of the staff as she got closer to the truth trying to survive in a dark environment while protecting herself and her patients. Instead, the paranormal element undermines all of this drama and suspense, spoon feeding these darker horrors to both the audience and the characters and eliminating the humanity behind all the conflict thus turning it into nothing more than another “ghost looking for revenge” movie, a subgenre that’s completely played out in today’s cinema.
“The Power” is a prime example of wasted potential, especially as a horror movie. What starts as a well crafted and suspenseful drama set in the background of a literally dark era in Britain’s history eventually devolves into generic paranormal horror territory that does no justice to the dark and, in some ways, timely themes that are promised in the first 40 minutes. While I didn’t talk about them much in the review, the performers do their best with what they have and star Rose Williams does a fine job being center stage, but director and writer Corinna Faith’s inability to commit to an identity for the film sadly undermines everything the story, inspiration and performances have going for them. I do feel she had good intentions and individually both halves of this movie could have made great films on their own, but together they feel disjointed and create a confusing and mostly unsatisfying experience that, from my perspective, is a wasted opportunity to that could have produced something truly original and great.